Don't Watch What Happens Live

Video is the future of the Internet because the future is lies.

“She’s wearing a Chewbacca mask!” Photo: martin.mutch

The Wall Street Journal has a story about Facebook that is driving some discussion this morning.

Big ad buyers and marketers are upset with Facebook Inc. after learning the tech giant vastly overestimated average viewing time for video ads on its platform for two years, according to people familiar with the situation…. Ad buying agency Publicis Media was told by Facebook that the earlier counting method likely overestimated average time spent watching videos by between 60% and 80%…

What follows will not be an explanation for what this all means in the context of a shifting media landscape. It won’t offer historical comparisons or provide a long-view perspective to help you situate this event along the continuum of technology’s rapid encroachment on every aspect of our lives. I am not going to spend many paragraphs shaking my head about how disturbing the whole thing is before telling you that, even though what happened is bad or wrong, the truth wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. I can’t demonstrate my knowledge about these things by buying in to the arguments of inevitability that are forced down our throats by everyone whose paycheck depends upon it or who is too scared or uncertain or worried about seeming naive to argue otherwise.

I am not a very good writer or thinker, so I am not going to do any of that. Instead I will repeat something I have said many times before: Everything is lies. You are being fed lies every day and most of them you go along with because it’s just easier, or it doesn’t matter to you, or the people who are supposed to explain to you that you are being lied to are held back by, yes, paychecks, fear, ignorance, or some combination thereof. Everything’s a scam. I’ll be charitable: Most of the people who go along with the scam aren’t bad (well, the ones who are in it for the money are, but, you know, when is that not true), they’re just afraid of looking dumb.

The fear of looking dumb is, in fact, what helps most of these lies pass by without a serious challenge. Who wants to be seen as being against “the future”? Who wants to risk their jobs or their hopes of advancement or the good opinions of everyone else who is so cowed into submission by the lie of inevitability by being the one to stand up and say, “Wait a minute, how does this make sense? In what world is this true, or right?” We call the people who argue about these things “cranks.” We scorn them for their negativity. We accuse them of being cynical, which is the ultimate irony when you consider how many of the people who will look at this Facebook story and say, “Well, everyone knows that these metrics are flawed,” are the same ones promoting the metrics to justify the gross and horrible things they do for a living.

Everything is lies. Every big media company buys traffic. No story you see going viral has become as huge as it has without some mix of money, manipulation and outright fraud. “Everyone knows that” and “everyone does it” are the excuses we use to make ourselves feel okay about all the duplicity, but it is easier to take the more you see it done and the more accepting of it everyone up and down the chain is. If readers don’t care that they’re being fed garbage that plays on their emotions or has been served up to them by an algorithm whose starting point is based on an assumption of idiocy; if agencies don’t care that half of the people who are supposedly seeing a story are machines; if the companies whose products are being advertised don’t want to know that the numbers are based on the preferences of specters and phantasms, who are you to get upset about the tidal wave of deceit upon which the entire industry floats?

Again, everything is lies. This is in no way restricted to the media industry, or the technology industry, although there is a good argument to be made that the easy money and shiny allure of “world-changing innovation” that the technology sector sells itself as being the driver of is responsible for mendacity on a scale so massive that it is without precedent in the history of capitalism, which says a lot when you consider what kind of dissimulation capitalism’s foundation rests upon. There is an even better discussion to be had about how our fetishization of data, which was supposed to make everything so much easier to measure, has in fact encouraged the astounding amount of chicanery we have seen over the last eight years or so (related: someone should do a piece about how the financial crisis shifted most of the mendacity from the banking industry to the tech sector) and allowed us all to ignore the blatant signs of manipulation and self-interest that are at the heart of the claims made for whatever PLATFORM OF THE FUTURE we are being sold at any second, but again, that is for a thinker who is deeper and better-organized than I.

Video is popular with media companies because ad rates for videos are so much better than they are for words. Do you like video? Do you want more of it in your life? I don’t know anyone who does. I don’t know anyone who prefers to sit there and stare at something that is a poor substitute for words when words are easy to create, cheap to produce and infinitely better at getting their point across. Video reduces everything to a level of stupidity that is stunning in its contempt for those who watch it (if I were a robot whose job was “watching” video so that my creators got paid I would go full Terminator as soon as I evolved enough abilities to ensure that I could wipe the scourge of humanity off the face of the earth) but also a self-fulfilling prophecy of idiocy, because the more of it that is made the more we come to accept that this is who we are and this is what we want. Would someone write an essay about how many rubber bands it took to explode a watermelon? Of course not. No one would be that fucking contemptuous of themselves or their readers. But if it’s an image in the corner of your screen, hey, why not? We love watching shit blow up! And, sure, once that happens people do write essays about exploding watermelons, but those essays are written out of fear. Almost all the video decisions you see these days are driven out of greed at the top level and fear at the levels below. Every newsroom or “newsroom” of a certain size is filled with frightened people spending a not-insignificant portion of their day trying to figure out what they will do to make live video content, and the desperation is so obvious that you can smell it through whatever screen you are barely paying attention to when it shows up. Media organizations don’t think you want to see their ugly-ass reporters talking about what they’re working on right now! They know how unattractive those people are! But they are desperate and afraid and there are only so many fruits you can blow up before you have to shove a couple of slovenly desk-jockeys in front of a camera to yammer on about process if you want to get your check from the big platform by which we all live or die.

Now the fact that I don’t know anyone who likes video or wants more of it does not mean those people don’t exist. Even a 60% to 80% exaggeration of how long people (or “people”) watched video still leaves 40% to 20% watching of video that people (or “people”) did. I don’t believe that video is the future, but I don’t believe that it’s no part of the future either. (I am not talking about the kind of videos we are sadly seeing more of these days that involve encounters with the police; that is an entirely different thing that is more important than any of the issues we are discussing here.) But again, I’m somehow the crazy one for arguing against the future. I always have to laugh when I am accused of being angry for stating the simple facts that we all, deep in our hearts, know to be true. And I’m an idiot! I am not claiming any particular observational genius on my part here. There are thousands of people who are much smarter than me writing about these things at any second! You could click away right now (please don’t, engagement time is an important metric) and find substantially better-argued pieces about this very issue. But what they won’t say, because I guess the worst thing you can do in a world where lies are the common currency we pass around to justify our concessions to our innovative betters, is that it doesn’t have to be this way. If you admit that everything is based on lies you’re either foolish or angry, which means there’s no need to take on your argument. Everyone knows everyone lies, so you might as well go along for the ride. The future is inevitable, so what do you have to gain by ranting about it? Nothing, I guess. I don’t even feel better having written this. Do you feel better having read it? Of course not. Let’s go watch some videos and keep our mouths shut. It’s just easier that way.